NORTH ANDOVER — For some people, the world’s gradual transition from ink on paper to pixels on a screen is fraught with emotion. But there’s one place north of Boston where print still reigns supreme.
The Museum of Printing across the street from the common in North Andover is a little-known treasure trove of presses, type, typesetters, and other vintage equipment.
“There’s a renaissance in letterpress printing,” driven by artists and hobbyists, said museum president Frank Romano.
The museum’s biggest day of the year comes on Father’s Day Sunday with the 10th annual Printing Arts Fair, featuring steamroller printing. And that’s not some archaic pressman’s term. We’re talking a real steamroller here. In the driveway. Printing.
The big yellow steamroller will make 3-by-9-foot prints from 27 individual linoleum blocks made by local artists. There will be working presses and other demonstrations, hands-on activities for the kids, and everyone can print their own Father’s Day card. Museum volunteers will demonstrate litho, letterpress, and intaglio printing, and visitors will find a huge selection of type and equipment on sale from the museum and outside vendors.
Visitors also can tour the summerlong exhibition of the late printer and woodcut artist Mark T. Fowler’s colorful nature prints, clearly inspired by Japanese techniques. Art lovers will want to check out the display of prints by woodcut artist Anna Hogan of Lawrence. There is a modest gift shop.
The best way to experience the museum, though, may be simply to find Romano and follow him around. Romano has spent most of his life in the printing industry and is professor emeritus at the School of Print Media at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. He seems to know every piece of equipment by heart, its history and function, from clanking wood-and-iron contraptions of the 1800s to “Mad Men”-era consoles that ushered in phototypesetting, right up to a wide-format ink-jet printer.
The museum has about 30 presses on site, and 120 tons of equipment stored in an offsite warehouse. Highlights of the collection at the museum include the last letterpress machine to print a New England newspaper, an 1896 Whitlock drum cylinder press that printed the Millbury Journal into 2005; and an 1888 Hoe rotary flatbed newspaper press that printed the Hingham Gazette for 80 years. Many are kept in working order for printing classes and workshops.
There are also artifacts like an actual press cylinder from the New York Times in 1969, with the page one headline: MEN WALK ON MOON.
“Those presses are gone of course, they were sold to someone in Guatemala,” Romano said.
The 20,000-square-foot museum is normally open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the visitors a few weeks ago were a typical mix of printing aficionados and the vaguely curious.
“I’m interested in graphic design and type,” said John Sisco, an artist and photographer from Upton. “I’m curious where people come up with all these different types, and the history of type and typesetting, and when I saw this place was open I just had to get here.
“I’m just fascinated with the machinery. I can’t believe all these old presses are here,” Sisco said.
Romano and executive director Kim Pickard of Newburyport also like showing off the treasures in the museum’s libraries, which hold a considerable collection of books about printing and printing exemplars, an extraordinary collection of letter drawings for font design from the 1930s, and another of botanical engravings from the Arnold Arboretum. All this is available to researchers by appointment. Documenting such artifacts is a big part of the museum’s challenge going forward.
The museum began informally in the 1970s and after various moves and becoming a nonprofit, settled in its present site just over a decade ago. “We have survived month to month for 35 years, and it’s all because of the volunteers,” said Romano, himself and Pickard included. “Some of the ways we get by are with memberships, donations, and type sales.”
Upstairs in the building, shelves and drawers hold an array of individual pieces of type — letters and numbers in all sorts of fonts and sizes — which are sold at these events for the blanket price of $2 a pound (typesetter’s ornaments, icons, and borders, 60 cents per ounce.) Some visitors come simply to collect the letters for a family name in a living room display, while others are hobby or boutique printers looking to fill out their collection.
“This is one of the few places on earth where you can actually buy letterpress supplies,” said Romano. “Hobbyists start, and then they want a bigger press and more type, and once they’re sucked in, we have them.”
Carrie Tuccio, who traveled from Ghent, N.Y., is part of that renaissance.
“I’m buying type because I have a [tabletop] press, and I did printmaking in school, and I’ve been doing bookbinding on my own, and I’m trying to get back into letterpress printing because I liked it so much,” she said.
“I found two Santas that look like they’re vintage,” said Melanie Sheerin, a nurse from Rye, N.H., who said making art is her hobby. “I’m going to make cards, like Christmas cards.”
It was her first time visiting the museum. She had heard about it from a friend who has a press, and now she was expecting her own tabletop press to be delivered soon.
The museum also offers a few old presses for sale, usually for less than $500. Much of the stuff is donated, often from print shops that are closing down or whose owner has passed away. Occasional museum workers will refurbish a press. Proceeds go straight to museum coffers.
“We’re not in this for a profit, but because we love what we do,” Romano said.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.